January 19, 2018

Leonardo S. Mercado: The Story of a Hispanic Missionary Pioneer

Dick Mercado

Leonardo S. Mercado’s family emigrated from Mexico City to Arizona during the days of the Mexican Revolution. Leonardo’s father, Gumecindo Mercado, chose to relocate his family away from the dangers of the Revolution and to the peace and quiet of Northern Arizona. The family’s travel by railway pushcart from Mexico through the El Paso, Texas, area and ultimately to the little town of Williams—Arizona’s gateway to the Grand Canyon—is an epic story in itself.

At one stop for lunch, they stumbled on a little one-armed man who had been left for dead in an abandoned silo. Grandpa Mercado insisted they do what they could to help the wounded man, and, despite some objections that adding him to the pushcart would jeopardize their journey, they lifted him onto the cart and renewed their travel to the United States.

Some time later they were suddenly halted by soldiers of the Mexican army who had mistaken the Mercado clan for revolutionaries. Just as those soldiers were discussing killing all the Mercado men, including young Leonardo, the wounded stranger spoke up, “¡No! ¡No les hagan daño! No! Don’t harm these good people! I was lying helpless in a silo many miles back. These strangers heard my cry and picked me up. They saved my life. Now you must spare them!” As it turned out, the army commander and the man the Mercados had rescued were first cousins! So, for the sake of their familial bond, the commander reversed his assassination plans and ordered instead that Gumecindo with all his emigrating family be fed royally and extended all possible courtesies of the Mexican army. Thus all the Mercados were able to resume their migration northward.

Arriving finally at Williams, Arizona, the Mercado family settled into their new environment with young Leonardo helping in the Roman Catholic Church as an altar boy.

In time, a young Anglo neighbor boy who befriended Leonardo began inviting him to visit their Sunday school, which was meeting in a nearby Methodist Church. Despite Leonardo’s objections and insistence that he couldn’t go there, the boy kept on, week by week, persisting in inviting him. Finally, one Saturday (perhaps to get his chum off his back), Leonardo told his young Methodist playmate, “Okay, tomorrow morning I’ll go with you to Sunday school.” Well, he did go; he heard the gospel of salvation; and he received Christ as his personal Savior. His salvation was the beginning of the spiritual pilgrimage that would eventually lead him to the Spanish-American Theological Seminary of Los Angeles, where, around 1923 or 1924, he and Alberto Morales became the school’s first two graduates.

One day during his seminary days, Leonardo and his father were walking down one of the main streets of San Pedro, the harbor city of Los Angeles, when they began to hear what seemed to be the strains of a gospel song. “Let’s go see what that might be,” Leonardo urged. Following the sound of the music, they found themselves witnessing an old-fashioned gospel street meeting. A little Spanishspeaking San Pedro church was giving out the gospel downtown, and, interestingly enough (especially interesting to Leonardo), there was an earnest and attractive young lady playing the little portable organ for the singing group. They had placed the organ just off the sidewalk in what is commonly called the gutter.

Well, tradition has it that on observing that dedicated young missionary lady, Leonardo leaned over and whispered to his father, “Dad, I’m going to marry that young lady.” Most of you are ahead of us at this point. The day came when, indeed, Leonardo did marry that young lady!

And just who was that young lady? Her name was Hazel Hawley, the firstborn daughter of Herbert A. and Gertrude Hawley. The Hawleys were staunch Yankees from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, with a pedigree dating back to the voyage of the Mayflower. In fact, as the Mercados were migrating north from Mexico City to Arizona, the Hawleys were migrating south and west from New England to Southern California! The Hawleys eventually settled in Anaheim, California.

In due course of time, young Hazel graduated from high school and, being interested in spiritual things, found her way into the student body of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (later Biola University). It was while she was a student there that, under the chapel preaching of President Dr. R. A. Torrey, she came under spiritual conviction of her need of personal salvation. Right there in the Biola chapel, she trusted Christ and passed from death to life. Hazel graduated in the same senior class as Charles E. Fuller of The Old Fashioned Revival Hour fame.

The Lord of the Harvest led her to study Spanish and to give herself to missionary service among the Mexican people of San Pedro, California. It was while “on duty” as a single missionary lady that God arranged for Leonardo, the young seminarian, to find her, as he would sometimes tease her, “in the gutter”!

God led the newlywed couple to serve the Lord in soul winning, discipling, and church leadership with what was then called the Northern Baptist Convention. The Mercados were assigned to the Phoenix, Arizona, Hispanic field, where Leonardo was to serve as pastor of the First Mexican Baptist Church of Phoenix and director of El Centro Cristiano (The Christian Center)—a kind of spiritual/social hub for reaching and teaching souls and meeting people’s social as well as spiritual needs. The Mercados served for several years in that capacity, but both Leonardo and Hazel became increasingly concerned about the inordinate amount of time and effort that some of the denominational leadership were insisting they give to the so-called social implications of the gospel, as opposed to what they felt was their primary calling: evangelism, discipling, and church planting. Even as early as the late 1920s, Leonardo and his companion were very concerned about the inroads that Modernism seemed to be making in the convention.

The day came when Hazel told her pastor husband that she was prepared, if necessary, to cook tamales and help peddle them down the streets of the city, all the searing summer heat of Phoenix notwithstanding, if they could only be free to serve the Lord with the soul-winning burden and emphasis they both shared as the primary passion of their ministry.

Pastor Mercado announced to the church that he and his family were leaving, and he gave them some of the Biblical and doctrinal reasons for their departure. A few of those dear people approached Pastor Mercado following the service and exclaimed, “Why, that’s what we believe! Why don’t you come back from your trip to California, and, although we may be but a handful in number, we can begin in the home of Deacon Ramon Carrillo. Please, please, come back and pastor us. God will bless us as we stand together for the Lord and for His Truth.”

Soon enough, the Spirit of the Lord burdened the hearts of Leonardo and Hazel to leave California, move back to Phoenix, gather together the puñado (handful) of committed brethren, and begin meeting in the front room of Deacon Carrillo’s humble home on Jefferson Street near the edge of downtown Phoenix.

Since then this church and the Mexican Gospel Mission, which sprang from those humble beginnings in the midst of the traumas, trials, and tribulations of the Great Depression, have both celebrated their anniversary on Thanksgiving Day, since it was on the evening of Thanksgiving Day 1930 that the little flock organized as a fledgling church and mission.

Now, after seventy-five years of ministry of both church and mission, we are humbled and thankful for the great working of God—for His providential care of the Mercado family as they traveled north, thankful for the little boy who witnessed to his Hispanic playmate, thankful for the investment people made in Leonardo’s leadership training, and thankful that God put it in his heart to make the hard decision to separate from apostasy. As we think about the many Hispanic children that we now see in all parts of our country, one cannot help wondering whether among them is another Leonardo.

Dr. Dick Mercado, Leonardo Mercado’s son, is the former director of Mexican Gospel Mission (now Mission Gospel Ministries International) and pastor of the Iglesia Evangélica in Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to these responsibilities, Dr. Mercado and his wife, Margene, have served in a wide range of activities, including preaching and teaching in English and Spanish, radio ministries, and gospel films. He is currently the Pastor at Large of the Phoenix Church and International Representative of MGM International.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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